Friday, May 20, 2011

Closing Chapter 1 - Lip Service

Closing Chapters
Reflections on my time as a bookseller
Chapter 1 - Lip Service

photo: Bill West
We’re closing. The death knoll was rung on St. Patty’s Day and outside of the fact that it gave us all a damn good reason to drink nothing positive could come from it… or so I thought. 

In the days that followed we festooned the retail space with garish banners that transformed our beloved bookstore into a bargain basement. The signs proclaimed, ‘Everything Must Go!’ which was truth in advertising for it included my entire staff. We were all given one-way tickets to the curb, departure six to eight weeks. 

We did our jobs. It’s what we do. It was all part of the work ethic I tried to instill into each of my teammates during the past six years. Even though the task of masking every square inch with signage felt like we were measuring and cutting planks for our own caskets; we toughed it out. We knew no other way. 

I had it in my head that I needed to be strong for my staff. I was upbeat, always lending a shoulder to anyone who needed it. I must have appeared delusional to the others, wallowing in the denial pool of Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief. It was what they needed, what I needed. 

As the liquidation began I found a comfort level incorporating a script in my mind to use when interacting with the public. It insulated me from the barrage of emotions on the sales floor. “yada yada… no coupons.” “blah blah blah… no checks.” “wink, half-smile… all sales final.” Each word was delivered with the bravado of a bartender barking out last call, “Ya don’t hafta go home but cha can’t stay here!” Insulated, effective… safe.

As I faced customers one-on-one it became harder to divorce myself from the grim reality of the situation. Inevitably the words, “I’m so sorry this store has to close.” I would nod, biting my tongue not to extrapolate on just how true those words were to every one of the soon to be unemployed on the floor. Many, whose faces were not familiar, quickly switched gears. “So when are you closing for good? When are the prices going to lower? Why is everything such a mess?” they would ask while their fellow shoppers trounced about like pirates pillaging a village. I again gave an anesthetized nod of the head and would reply, “We don’t know, don’t know, and…” and concluded our meeting by looking out across the devastation that was once a bookstore, again a measured response. 

Then there were the regulars who began the same way, “I’m so sad…” It wasn’t merely a formality, they meant it. They were sorry for us, sorry for themselves, sorry that we lived in a world where the greed of the few can so easily decimate the futures of the many. Mostly they were sorry that they were losing a safe haven. We became a part of their social life, a habit of sorts and going cold turkey was going to be a bitch. Then came the silence; as strong as the space between ex-lovers. Words would not suffice. Assorted small talk would follow closing with the obvious, “It’s a damn shame.” 

Near the end of the first weekend a woman came to me. Her eyes were glassy, tears held back. With a fragile warble in her voice she opened up to me how much our store had meant to her. She had met the love of her life amongst the stacks of books, searched for answers and solace during her pregnancy in the parenting and baby board book section, shared with us the upbringing of her children through our story times and numerous kiddie events and watched them grow from learning to read to an independent reader who couldn’t wait for our next Harry Potter extravaganza. Now she had to face telling her children that one of their favorite places would be gone forever. It was a life lesson no parent wanted to teach until a family member passes. 

I nodded, thanked her and shared with her that inspiring children to be excited about reading is one of the highlights of the job. You don’t get that spark of fulfillment by meeting your quota of widgets but opening a young child’s eyes to the world of Dahl, L’Engle, Reardon and Rowling makes being a bookseller more than just picking up a paycheck. I invited her to bring her children on by next time so that I could put on my jester hat, strike up the band and give them a jovial goodbye. I closed the conversation with the lightest hand on her shoulder and the calculated and safe closing, “The best we can get from this is a bargain.”

I continued through the shift, insulated from the unruly shoppers. (all I could think of was Peter Lorre in Casablanca, ‘Vultures, vultures, everywhere.’) I charmed the twenty minute line that ran half-way through the cavernous store. “yada yada… blah blah blah… all sales final.” I closed my autotron speech by putting my two palms together before me, so Buddha-esque, and concluded, “… and thank you for your years of loyalty, you will be missed.” I should have stayed on script. Looking across the line my eyes fell upon the same young mother looking up at me. I took a ten and I never take a ten. It was her lip, quivering, that got me. 

None of us are safe.

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